Every month I get a few e-mails from people who want to reveal to me the real truth about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The truth, according to my correspondents, always involves some incredibly elaborate conspiracy theory in which the U.S. government staged the attacks to justify the so-called war on terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
These theories are invariably absurd on their face (for one thing, they assume a genuinely superhuman level of malevolent competence on the part of the Bush administration). Yet despite all their superficial absurdity, the claims of the 9/11 Truthers touch on a deeper truth, which is as ironic as it is disturbing.
That deeper truth is contained in their claims that the real meaning of 9/11 has very little to do with the standard account given by our government and media. While the 9/11 Truth movement is easy to dismiss as a product of various paranoid delusions, the irony is that the respectable version of what happened on 9/11 is itself a reflection of strikingly similar patterns of thought.
The respectable version -- the version that was more or less accepted by all Very Serious People at the time of the invasion of Iraq -- goes like this: The 9/11 attacks were merely an early strike in a war against the United States. This war is being carried out by something called Radical Islam, of which the al-Qaida terrorist network is only one small branch.
Radical Islam is a global conspiracy, made up of a significant minority of the world's more than 1 billion Muslims. It includes the governments of nations like Iran and Syria, and one of its key supporters was Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime.
The goal of Radical Islam is world domination through the creation of a global caliphate, which requires, among other things, the complete destruction of the United States and the conversion of our surviving population to the most extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism, as practiced in nations such as Saudi Arabia.
Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein was trying to build atomic weapons -- weapons that he might well give to terrorist groups that were his allies in Radical Islam's quest to destroy America.
This, I repeat, was (and to a significant extent still is), the respectable interpretation of the meaning of 9/11. When anyone questioned the evidence for this view, Very Serious Politicians like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would say things like "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Meanwhile, Very Serious Opinion Makers like Charles Krauthammer of The Washington Post argued (and continue to argue) that America must also go to war against Iran because we could wake up one day to the news that nuclear weapons have been detonated in several American cities, by order of suicidal mullahs who turned over their soon-to-be-acquired nuclear arsenal to the vast shadowy global jihadist network.
That the respectable interpretation of 9/11 remains respectable in so many important places should not obscure the fact that it is a paranoid fantasy of the first order -- one as utterly unhinged from reality as the most extravagant imaginings of the 9/11 Truthers.
It's easy to lose sight of this because while the 9/11 Truthers remain quarantined on obscure Web sites, the paranoid conspiracy theorists currently in charge of American foreign policy continue to appear regularly on network television and on the opinion pages of our leading newspapers.
There, they make crazy arguments, such as that denying the president the right to throw people in prison for the rest of their lives without ever having to explain why exposes our nation to the risk of annihilation by terrorists. Meanwhile, almost nobody ever points out that these arguments are actually insane.
And that's the real truth about 9/11.
Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 The E.W. Scripps Co.